In the early 1970s, when the Stratford Festival board offered Robin Phillips the position of artistic director, he is reported to have said, “I’d love to come to Stratford, but where will I eat?” Since 1953, hundreds of thousands of visitors had flocked to Stratford every summer for the theatre, but they did not come to dine before or after performances, because there was not a single restaurant in town to tickle the fancy of a discriminating gourmet. Incredibly, the city boasted only a few greasy spoons and a steakhouse.
In 1975, renowned British restaurateur Joe Mandel launched the Church Restaurant, to immediate acclaim. Over the next few years, two other major restaurants and a wildly popular theatre pub opened. The demand for quality chefs to run these establishments led the owners to found the Stratford Chefs School. Graduates of the school stayed, opening restaurants, specialty food shops, catering businesses, cafes and bars – something to appeal to every taste and pocketbook. The chefs’ demand for quality ingredients in turn inspired suppliers to grow specialty produce, raise organic stock and manufacture unusual cheeses. Today, Stratford is not just a major theatre centre, but a culinary one as well, with its own culinary festival Savour Stratford.
The individuals involved in these early ventures had a profound impact not just on Stratford’s restaurant industry but on the whole culture of the city. Over the last few years I have been exploring Stratford’s culinary history and have decided to post some of the stories – see Culinary Stratford Stories.